Tag: Writing

jobsheadThere is an excerpt of a Steve Jobs interview that has recently been making the rounds on Twitter. In it Jobs explains his frustration with the “disease” of thinking that 90% of success lies in “great ideas.”

The excerpt spoke to my experience in writing Where the Air Is Sweet. The germ of the book was a great idea: A real life story about ethnic cleansing that hadn’t been told countless times in books or movies or  magazine features.

And I’ve had aspiring writers to say to me on more than one occasion, “You’re so lucky you had a great story to tell. I wish I had that.” Apart from the ludicrous idea that having experienced displacement, trauma, poverty etc. etc. at a young age constitutes luck, this is patently ridiculous. There are lots of great stories out there. Shakespeare borrowed plots. They weren’t a big deal. His execution, on the other hand, was a very big deal. In other words, craftsmanship — art — demands  skill, effort and discipline.

I knew somewhere in my consciousness that I wanted to tell this story for about 20 years. I knew it had value and meaning for me, and I knew from the perspective of a reader of novels and as a journalist that it had story value. But it wasn’t until I began writing it, actually writing it, mapping it out, deciding what to include, how to express it, perspective and tense and themes, and engaging my brain and letting the story pull in the directions it wanted to pull that it became something. And this process of it “becoming something” — of creating — was magic. Characters went in directions I had not planned. Words flowed with a music I didn’t know I could express. Editors came into my life who helped shape a stronger book. I found energy and time to write when I had been convinced, 100% convinced, I  possessed very little of either.

In the words of Steve Jobs, the late master of ideas and their execution:

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I have a memory seared in my mind.

I am five years old and swimming in the Apollo Hotel pool in Kampala. It is 1974. A quiet weekend outing is suddenly charged when a grinning Idi Amin Dada appears in his swim trunks. A little boy, no older than I, is standing in front of Amin, between him and me. The boy (one of Amin’s sons it is clear by the military fatigues he is wearing and his position next to Amin) is staring at me, though there must be many other people about. The boy’s anger is palpable and directed at me. I cannot imagine what I have done to inspire it. But I am afraid of him. I am not afraid of his father.

The context of this event was life in Kampala during Amin’s lunatic rule. Soldiers, usually drunk, were crawling on most streets, particularly the ones near our home (which was very close to a large barracks). Each night the city would erupt in gunfights that would continue long after I had fallen asleep.

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Idi Amin with two of his sons in Kampala in 1975.

In my early attempts at telling the story of Asians in Uganda at that time, I chose to put these scenes of my childhood at the centre of the narrative, to put myself at the centre of the narrative.

What I wrote was forced and stilted and embarrassingly self-indulgent.

Four years ago, I moved to Tanzania, leaving behind a well-paying job at The Globe and Mail and selling my house, having no plan whatsoever except to live in East Africa and write a novel (with two children under the age of three in tow, this was a reckless decision by any standard). In Dar es Salaam, my husband found a job piloting a small plane. We lived off savings and his meagre earnings as I wrote each day.

It was exhausting. The mosquitoes and heat were unbearable and my baby was waking multiple times in the night. But the words were flowing and in a voice that rang so authentically I knew the story I had been trying to tell for years was finally freed.

What opened the floodgates was a sensation of disorientation. I was lost in Dar. I found no peers, saw nothing familiar and ached for home. I began to think about why I moved, why anyone moves. When I asked these questions, my grandfather, as a young man and not as the old, tired dying man I remember, appeared in my mind.

With this young man standing in the pale dust of Malia, longing for a life beyond his imagination, Where the Air Is Sweet began.

The characters quickly came to life, often expressing thoughts I had no recollection of forming. I realized that what I needed to do for so many years was to get out of the way and the story could come.

About five months into full-time writing, I began to insert details, gleaned from my parents, from aunts and uncles and later from books and later still from newspaper archives. I travelled through Uganda to the places I was writing about. I touched the house my grandfather built, visited my grandmother’s grave, stood in front of the once feared Public Safety Unit.

This book is fiction. It is framed by historical events and my family’s experience. It is, at its simplest, a story of movement and longing.

Where the Air is Sweet_finalsmallWhere the Air Is Sweet is the title of my first novel. It is being published by the wonderful people at HarperCollins Canada. The publication date is May 2014. The on sale date (when you can buy it from booksellers) is June 3.

Here is a blurb about the novel taken from my agency’s website:

In 1972, dictator Idi Amin expelled 80,000 South Asians from Uganda. Though many had lived in East Africa for generations, they were forced to flee in 90 days as their country descended into a surreal vortex of chaos and murder.

Spanning the years between 1921 and 1975, Where the Air Is Sweet tells the story of Raju, a young Indian man drawn to Africa by the human impulse to seek a better life, and three generations of his family who carve a life for themselves in a racially stratified colonial and post-colonial society. Where the Air Is Sweet is a story of family, their loves, their griefs, and finally their sudden expulsion at the hands of one of the world’s most terrifying tyrants.

In the writing of the novel, I relied, in particular, on two excellent books for background of the Idi Amin years. General Amin by David Martin and A State of Blood by Henry Kyemba. Both books provide some great insight into the politics of the time.

I also relied on family members’ recollections. I was born in Mbarara, Uganda (where a good chunk of the novel is set) in 1969, about three and a half years before Idi Amin expelled Asians (South Asians) from Uganda, a group which included my family. Officially he expelled only non-citizen Asians, but it was a little more complicated than that. In any case, I obviously have a personal stake in the telling of this story.

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Asian Ugandans board a plane at Entebbe, Uganda,
in September 1972 after Idi Amin’s expulsion order.

I have read a number of long and short histories on Uganda, encyclopedia entries, news articles, whatever I could get my hands on. I was astonished by the almost complete absence of information about Asians. In a book-length rendering on the nation of Uganda from pre-independence until today, it was not uncommon to find a lone paragraph (made up of about two sentences) that summed up the entire history of Asians in Uganda (a history that spans a century or more), including their expulsion.

Someone had to tell their story. So I did. It is not the story. It is one story.

BlogFirstPassMy publication date for Where the Air Is Sweet is confirmed. May 2014. The pace of everything has picked up. In late August I received the copy-edited manuscript for approval. And now I have the typeset page proofs, the first pass pages. They came by UPS. I can hold them in my hands: my words.

The book is taking shape, taking form, manifesting. Finally, after all the work, after rewrites and rewrites, after years of gestating, the book is being born.

Writing is solitary. Creating happens in my mind; sometimes it is expanded, built upon in conversations with my editor, but ultimately it’s something I do alone. I have created this novel from a deeply personal place. It feels strange, then, preparing to share it (broadly, beyond people I know). It feels as though I am about to be transformed. In the way giving birth transformed me, added a new dimension, a new layer, to my being.

I’m not writing here about my fears: fears that people won’t like the book – I know some people won’t like it (not everyone loves everything); or that the book won’t sell well – it may not; this business, and it is a business, is fickle. No one can predict how a book will be received.

I’m writing here about how it feels to share what I’ve considered for so long “unshareable” because it was (I believed) true only for me and not something anyone else would care about. I am sharing the unshareable, going even further, allowing people to connect to it, relate to it, perhaps gain from it.

It’s extraordinary. This process of creating art. And the impulse to share it. I used to think it was ego. But it’s not. Not entirely. Ego is, I think, wanting validation when you don’t have it for yourself. When ego is at work the sensations and thoughts I experience are unpleasant, cloying. I feel powerless and desperate for approval, acceptance, almost at any cost. This impulse to share what I have created from the depths of myself feels entirely different. It feels generous. The easy kind of generous, like when you have so much you are not at all concerned about sharing because there is no question in your mind you will always have enough.

There is a joy in this giving, in this sharing. Nothing is lost.

With this novel, I feel as though life has given me a gift that will grow in ways I cannot even begin to imagine when I share it. And so my sharing is a responsibility, a privilege and a pleasure.

And on this weekend of Thanksgiving I can say, for this, I am grateful.

BlogFlannery“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”

Flannery O’Connor

Years ago I read this quote from Flannery O’Connor, the great American short story writer. She wrote each morning and then tended to the peacock farm she lived on with her mother. Every day, she sat down at her desk and gave over those hours to writing. Sometimes she wrote nothing of substance; sometimes she wrote nothing at all. But because her mind learned this time was always going to be dedicated to writing, it began to trust and to flow. Most days, she was productive.

There are practical reasons to write daily:

  • you don’t have to re-read sections of your manuscript, which takes up valuable time;
  • your family and friends begin to respect your writing time because you do;
  • as soon as you sit down you’ll be in the flow, no need to struggle to regain your mental writing space;
  • your subconscious starts to kick in and then magic happens in your writing (e.g. a character you created will say things you didn’t expect and will begin take on a life of its own).

But ultimately if you write regularly, you are making a sacred deal with that creative source within you to be open, to receive.

I finished my novel in one year by writing about three hours, maybe four, every morning while my daughter was in nursery school. If I needed a push here and there I took longer, after making arrangements with my husband. But the average was three hours daily. And I rarely wrote on weekends.

We’re not talking life-altering commitment here. No need to quit your day job.

Flannery O’Connor gave just two hours a day.

waxonwaxoff

Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi shows Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso how to wax a car in the Karate Kid, 1984

Remember that scene in the Karate Kid (the original one) when Mr. Miyagi promises to give young Daniel karate lessons but ends up making him wax cars, in a very particular manner, until he is exhausted? (Click here to watch it.) What Daniel doesn’t know (until later) is that he is developing muscle memory and strength and actual skills for karate.

I wrote headlines for The Globe and Mail’s news section for about six years. I didn’t realize it at the time but the skills I was practising in writing headlines would, much like the young Karate Kid’s car-waxing lessons, serve me later when I wrote my novel. I’ll share them here because even if you never have occasion to write a headline in your life, they will help you write.

The thing about writing headlines for a daily newspaper is you have to do it, and fast. You can’t do your laundry first or make coffee or visit Twitter. Deadlines are firm and they keep coming.

This is how you write a good headline: Write down the first idea that comes to you. This is important: You must write it down. You must commit it to paper (or the screen). Just put it down, no matter how lame. And know this: that first idea will very likely be lame. This is important, too. The lameness will free you to create: You won’t be so in love with it that you will fail to see it’s flaws.

And then you fiddle and tweak, considering why this particular word is not quite right or that particular angle is off. And before you know it, you will have a good headline. It works. I promise. Not every headline created this way is brilliant. But every headline is workable.

It isn’t effective, at least it wasn’t effective for me, to play out this process in your head. You’d think it would be. Headlines are usually only about 5 to 8 words long. Why not just hold these words in your head? Because, as every non-enlightened human being knows, the mind cannot remain still. It keeps flitting and moving and floating and not settling on anything.

Imagine a potter trying to create something without first throwing down a slab of clay. Impossible, right? You need raw materials to create. For writers, the raw material are words.

When it comes to writing creatively, I follow this method. I did it with each line, each scene, each chapter of my novel until I finished it.

Do you want to write fiction but are having trouble getting going? Commit something to paper, a line or two or a page or two. Whatever is flowing. Examine why you think it’s bad. And then make it good.

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Book publishing is slow
I was lucky. The first agent I submitted to agreed to represent me. But I waited almost six months for a response. The book sold quickly, in an exclusive to HarperCollins Canada within a month of signing with the agent. But that deal was in March 2011. My launch date is early 2014.

Publishers are gamblers
Publishers cannot predict how a book will sell (Londonstani anyone?) They have to guess. Obviously it’s an educated guess, but it’s a guess. They have to make a call and be willing to swallow the losses if they are wrong. They make a decision how much to invest (advance, marketing etc.) based on what they think the book will earn in sales. The writer does not have to pay back the advance to the publisher (regardless of how the book fares) and the publisher won’t get back what they paid out in production costs, marketing costs, office overhead, billing expenses and distribution expense. Oh, and if a vendor (i.e. Indigo, Barnes & Noble) fails to sell any books, they can return them to the publisher.

Writers need agents
Apart from the fact that agents provide access to major publishing houses, match up writers and editors, negotiate the best deals and scour through those complex contracts, they generally love to talk and “network” and are not shy about telling people what they think is good about themselves. The latter personality traits are usually poorly developed or outright absent in fiction writers.

Advance is short for something
This: advance against future royalties. This means if you earn royalties that equal the advance your publisher agreed to pay, you have done what is called earning out your advance (a good thing) and not lost your publisher any money. If you earn royalties beyond that figure, you’ve made your publisher money (a very very good thing) and then you get paid royalties.

Writers are paid very very slowly
In my case, and this is the norm, I received one-third of the advance upon signing, one-third upon manuscript completion and one-third at publication. So, basically, I get paid over two to three years. Even with a really good advance, this is not something you can bank on to support a family. Royalties (see above) come even more slowly, if they come at all.

Editors are on your team
I have worked as a journalist. I know editors are vital. But I viewed them as overly critical, cruel, knife-wielding pedants (when I was the writer; when I was editing, I was just usually right. :)). An editor is a writer’s greatest gift. She wants to see your book succeed. Editors and writers are on the same team, and realizing this will make the editing process a pleasure and likely far more successful.

A well-written book does not mean it is a marketable book; just as badly written books often sell spectacularly well
The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey. Need I say more?

Big publishing houses do care about quality literature
There is a narrative out there that only indie or boutique publishing houses are interested in quality books and the big publishing houses are all about slapping books together and making deals with celebrities. Obviously, these are profit-driven machines and the bottom line is vital. And, yes, celebrities often get headline-grabbing deals. But in my experience, HarperCollins has invested a great deal of time and two excellent editors in my book, despite it being literary fiction and despite me being an unknown writer.

Those bestsellers I mocked above? They are a boon to the book industry
The profits from blockbusters allow publishers to take on books that don’t have the potential of selling very well but have the potential to enrich our culture.

Everyone working in book publishing loves books
This is a risky business. If you’re in it you love the craft.

Leap and the net will appear. The thing is, the net is always there.

It took me a very long time to learn this. I didn’t believe it was there while we were in Dar for that year or even when we returned home, safe, healthy, an almost-completed manuscript in hand. I know now it’s our awareness that’s the issue, not the existence of the net.

My husband secured a job flying a plane for some executives. It paid very little, which was expected. Low-hour pilots aren’t paid well anywhere, and Dar was no exception. But we were prepared to lose money in this venture. The point was to gain experience. So, we found an apartment and settled in.

Now, I could start writing.

I resisted. I had so much to do: get Mia into a school, figure out how to buy reasonably priced groceries, learn how to drive on the “other side” and in the chaotic traffic.

In about three weeks or so, we found a school for Mia and I learned to drive our rental car, though I kept turning on the wipers when I meant to hit the indicator. And more than once, while making a left turn I went into the wrong lane. But I was beginning to feel more and more comfortable in the chaos.

Still, I resisted writing. There was always so much to do.

My husband called me on it one night. “You have to just write,” he said. “There will always be something else to do.”

Simple, irrefutable logic.

Finally, one morning in June 2009, I sat at my new desk, purchased on the side of the road from a local African furniture-maker. It was still sticky with newly applied varnish.

I stared at a blank Word document and pictured my grandfather as a young man. He left his village of Malia, in Gujarat, when he was in his early 20s to make a go of it in East Africa. He went alone with very little money and no knowledge of where he was going. Having taken off the way we had, with no plan and with so much unknown before us, I suddenly felt a kinship with him. In my mind, he was not the old man dying of cancer that I recall from my childhood. He was tall and strong and aching for something. I had visited Malia about 14 years earlier. It was dusty and dry. I remembered pale sand. Like a beach with no sea. With those words, with those images, I started writing.

My husband and I kept a blog while we were in Dar from 2009 until early 2010. I’ve included some of blog posts from that time. The are categorized under Dar es Salaam and 2009.

It’s been awhile since I posted. Lily’s eye is almost perfect again. She’s having her morning nap right now. Mia is home from school with a cold, again (the perils of starting school). Working on my novel is particularly tough with her at home. She’s a bundle of energy even when she’s sick. She just finished mopping her bedroom. I bought her a little mop from a hardware store. In a moment of African resourcefulness, the guy in the store just pulled out a saw and cut down a regular mop when I asked if they had child mops.

Earlier she tossed a balloon back and forth with me for half an hour (did I say she’s sick?) while Lily squealed with delight. I told her if she let me work for a while I would take her for a ride on her new bike. She is at the moment sitting behind me. I can feel her big eyes searing into my back. :)

DarbikeWe bought her a little Chinese-made (read: cheap) tricycle this weekend. It has a little trailer on the back which Craig and I thought would be perfect for Lily. Mia had a different idea. “It has a seat for Monkey!” she declared when she saw it. We convinced her to give Lily a ride now and then. (see pic).

Pint-sized demands aside, I have to say I’ve never had this kind of energy to write. I don’t need to read articles about writing or draw outlines of characters I don’t believe in or do laundry — all things I did when I sat down to write in the past. Now I write. And when I don’t write, I want to. Hence my delay in writing posts here. I’m greedy about my time on the computer, particularly with Craig’s job in a sort of limbo until September or so (when we find out if his salary will increase sufficiently for us to stay here). I know this is precious time to write, so I write.

Funny how life bestows gifts without you realizing it: between the kids and the limbo state we’re in, I’m being shoved right into the present moment, where, after so many years of trying to force it to, the writing is flowing….

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